Iraqi Refugee Despair:Exploring Imbalance in Iraqi Refugee Admissions

Birdsong’s refugee law student , Matthew Chidester, performed some interesting research last semester which  explores the imbalance in Iraqi war refugee admitted to the United States in light of the number of Southeast Asians admitted to the U.S. during and immediately after the Viet Nam war.  His paper is quite interesting and well worth reading.  Read and learn!

Iraqi Refugee Despair: Exploring the Imbalance in Iraqi Refugee Admissions, Compared to Previous Post-War Patterns

Matthew Chidester

December, 2008


     The Office of the President of the United States ultimately governs the refugee policy in the United States[1].  There are several agencies and government bodies who process and investigate possible candidates, but the heart of the policy governing who is given refugee status in the United States, leads back to the directives of the President himself[2].  Officially, the refugee policy of the United States is embodied in our several Acts and Conventions, including the “1980 Refugee Act”[3], the “1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees”[4], and the “1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees”[5].  These acts are in fact guidelines, as our treaties with other nations, and, as will be frequently mentioned, the principles and preferences of the President himself often change.

     Over the last five years there has been a remarkable outcry to assist the citizens of Iraq who were made homeless by war with Iran or in the more recent and ongoing war with the United States.  The outcry is quite critical of the sharp gulf of refugees the United States has accepted as opposed to other first world countries of the world.  But to adequately understand if this obvious deficit is the result of necessity, meaning the United States simply cannot allow more refugees in for reasons like security or the ability of the United States to offer them the requisite assistance once here, or if the deficit is a result of policy, we should consider other similar conflicts in our contemporary history.  The Vietnam becomes an easy foil because of both wars were fought far removed from our soil, and neither war was fought for conquest or enrichment.  Indeed both wars were fought over political ideals, and both wars were far bloodier for the native people than for the United States. 

     In choosing this topic, I hope to understand the role foreign war plays in our refugee policies, as well as to better understand whether our current refugee policies are well founded and consistent with previously similar circumstances, or whether the preferences of the people of the United States, and separately the President, have ignored the plight of a nation we are deeply embroiled with.

     Through a review of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, I will build a foundation of history to thereafter discuss the refugee policies of the respective wars and draw apparent and unapparent correlations.  Through this comparison of policy I will also demonstrate that the policies are not only different for very similar political situations, but endeavor to explain why the United States has taken the approach they have, and the potential changes we must make. 

The Vietnam War, A History  

Between 1959 and 1975, the United States was engaged in numerous military engagements in Southeast Asia, the most historically significant being the Vietnam War[6].  The United States entered into conflict with Vietnam as an allied response on behalf of France[7], whose military presence in Vietnam was all but exterminated by a communist-backed North Vietnamese government[8].  Over the next five years, three United States Presidents expanded the role of the United States military in the region[9], ultimately guaranteeing a protracted war between the North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese (who the United States military backed)[10].  This war outwardly and inwardly was a war fought on ideological lines, with the United States testing their “Containment Doctrine” (which dated back to the Truman Administration)[11], hoping to curb the spread of communism in the region by the USSR and China; success in Vietnam was ideally measured by the replacement of communism in the capitol city, by free democratic elections (supervised and made possible by the United States’ efforts).

     By 1973, two more Presidents had taken office, and both had modified the overall philosophy and tactics the military would employ on the ground, including the “Tet Offensive”[12](which took place in 1968), which was a massive military surge whose purpose was to finally overcome the North Vietnamese[13], but instead caused widespread destruction in South Vietnam and further divided an already crippled nation. “South Vietnam was a nation in turmoil both during and in the aftermath of the offensive. As government troops pulled back to defend the urban areas, the Vietcong moved in to fill the vacuum in the countryside…The violence and destruction witnessed during the offensive left a deep psychological scar on the South Vietnamese civilian population.”[14]

It was in 1973 that President Richard Nixon officially announced an end to offensive military tactics in Vietnam, and began the long process of withdrawing the United States military from Vietnam[15].Several rounds of peace negotiations followed with North Vietnam, which were primarily meant to secure democratic elections throughout Vietnam, no reprisals against the Viet Minh (South Vietnam), and the peaceful release of American POWs in Vietnam.[16]  In 1974 President Gerald Ford withdrew troops as part of the treaty agreements, and in 1975, the United States military presence in Vietnam was effectively over.[17]

The statistical effects of the war, in human life, were incredible.  According to the best estimates, two million Vietnamese (from both sides) were killed[18], nearly two million people were killed from Cambodia, Laos, and other South Asian nations, and nearly sixty thousand American troops were killed.[19]

After the war, an attitude of remorse and regret was prevalent in both the United States citizenry as a whole, and especially within the United States Government.  “The admission of a Vietnamese refugee population stemmed from political sympathy to the former Vietnamese allies who had fought with the United States…Many Americans felt a sense of obligation to a people that the United States had supported then abandoned.”[20]Though the United States had completely disengaged from Vietnam, there was an ever-present fear of reprisals against the South Vietnamese because of their support for the United States during the war.  As a result of this dramatic change of sentiment, the United States began admitting thousands of Vietnamese refugees as a means of protecting them from the several prevailing communist regimes in the region. After the fall of Saigon (South Vietnam) on April 30, 1975, 135,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled to the United States.  Between 1978 and 1985, the United States Government admitted approximately 995,000 Vietnamese nationals to immigrate to the United States.  Between 1981 and 2000, the United States has admitted 531,310 political refugees and asylees. 

The Iraq War, A History

     The United States invaded Iraq as a result of then-credible evidence linking Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein, to the attacks on of September 11, 2001.  The invasion took place in March of 2003 and was all but concluded on May 1, 2003, when President George W. Bush announced that the primary objectives of the invasion were successful and “Mission Accomplished”.[21]  On December 13, 2003, Saddam Hussein was captured.[22]

     In the aftermath of the United States’ invasion, approximately sixty thousand Iraqis are displaced from their homes, each month, because of sectarian violence.[23]  Though not exclusively caused by the Iraq war of this decade, approximately four million Iraqis are believed to be displaced around the world.[24]  Inside of Iraq, 2.2 million Iraqis are believed to be displaced; another 2-2.2 million Iraqis are believed to be displaced in neighboring countries (mainly Syria and Jordon)[25].  In other parts of the world, 200,000 Iraqis are currently displaced.[26]

Refugee Policies of the United States After the Vietnam War

     By 1975, it was utterly apparent that the United States was contracting in Southeast Asia (and Vietnam in particular) and the war against both Vietnam and communism was ending in failure.  “Many Americans wanted to wipe the slate clean with a complete disengagement from the region.”[27]  One of the main fears in leaving the region was reprisals against the loyal South Vietnamese, and thus began an era of refugee admittance through various ways and means.[28]

     Though the United States followed the “National Self Interest” model for refugee acceptance, which will be discussed in depth later, and there was also the motivation of moral obligation many Americans felt.  “Regarding the crisis primarily in humanitarian and political terms rather than as an ideological opportunity…the White House, the military, and the State Department all committed themselves to a program of limited scope and duration dedicated to rescuing America’s Vietnamese allies.”[29]

     To begin, the United States airlifted almost 130,000 Vietnamese from Saigon, before the city fell to the Communist North in 1975.[30]  In 1977, President Carter used the Presidential parole power to admit another 15,000 refugees, and in 1978, President Carter authorized a new program meant at creating new refugee legislation, while in the mean time, using the parole power again to authorize admission to 25,000 Vietnamese refugees each year.[31]  But the number continued to rise, and with the Refugee Act of 1980[32], 50,000 refugees were admitted each year. Over the next decade, more than one million Vietnamese refugees were re-settled in the United States, and a hundreds of thousands more across sixteen countries.[33]  Each step of the way, the President, or the congress, stepped over obstacles to admittance, including legislation and preemptive programs from the President meant to give relief to the overburdened immigration system while the numerical goals were accomplished.

Demonstrated Refugee Policies of the United States during the Iraq War

The direction of this note now turns to the war we are currently engaged in.  While current policies aren’t dispositive in proving future considerations, they are all the observer can use to make an educated assessment.  And the assessment must begin following the attacks on the World Trade Centers on September 11, 2001, when the United States decided unilaterally to engage in a war on terror.  “The downward shift in refugee admissions began immediately after September 11”.[34]  It was only weeks later, on September 28th, the State Department banned all refugees from entering the United States, pending a review of security procedures.[35]

The United States (under the Bush Administration) suspended its Resettlement Program for two months following the attacks of September 11th[36], and after these few months, on November 21, 2001, President George W. Bush promised to increase the number of refugees entering the United States to 70,000 during the 2002 fiscal year.[37]  At the end of Fiscal year 2002, only 27,110 refugees had been admitted[38]; this number exhibits a dramatic drop compared with the decade preceding the September 11th attacks.

Admission levels have risen slightly over years since the September 11 attacks, but these levels have never approached, even remotely, the refugee admission levels before those attacks.  “To put the post-September 11 admission levels into context, it must be noted that throughout the 1990’s the United States admitted anywhere from approximately 69,300 to 122,000 refugees per year, and that at its height in 1980, when the Presidential cap…was 231,700, the United States admitted 207,116 refugees.”[39]

It may be useful at this point to give a brief synopsis of the Iraqi refugee crisis since the attacks of September 11th, and the subsequent engagement of the United States military in Iraq.  It is estimated that 2.2 million native Iraqis have fled Iraq, and are living either in neighboring countries like Syria, in limbo in border camps on the Iraqi border, or are internally displaced in impoverished villages in refugee ghettos.[40]  Besides the danger inherent in war, many Iraqis face danger from religious backlash by the many warring religious factions, spread out among the thousands of villages in more rural Iraq.  Rural Iraq is the final destination for most internally displaced Iraqi refugees.[41]

Iraqi nationals once again lead the world in citizens seeking asylum in industrialized nations.  22,200 Iraqis sought asylum in 2006.  Sweden leads all first world nations, admitting 8,950 Iraqis in 2006.  By comparison, the United States was ninth among industrialized nations, admitting just 535. The United States has frequently made public announcements of ambitious (or at least marginal) policies concerning refugee admissions and refugee resettlement, but swiftly and quietly retracts or reduces their figures.  As an example, in 2007 the United States through the Department of State publicly proposed the intended goal of resettling 7000 Iraqi refugees, but only weeks later adjusted the number down by more than 60% to 2000 individuals.[42]

It is obvious the refugee policies of the United States have changed; the real question is what caused them to change so dramatically?  The refugee policies during, and following, the Iraq wars have not been guided by an emotional sense of regret, as they were in Vietnam, but the gulf between statistics is staggering.  “…Compared with its earlier rates of admission and the rates of admission from other countries, the United States has practically ceased offering Afghans and Iraqis refuge through its refugee admissions program.”[43]

Perhaps a look at the refugee policies the United States had with nations she was not at war with, will lend itself to a tangential understanding of our actions now.  The United States has frequently been accused of using refugee admissions as a public relations tool, practically a propaganda tool.  By following the pure self interests of the State, the United States has often made an effort to either embarrass a nation on poor terms with the United States by admitting large numbers of refugees, forwarding the idea that the home nation is in trouble.[44]  Conversely, the United States will turn a blind eye to governments guilty of abuse of their people, because of a favorable relationship with another nation.[45]  Take a moment to compare the United States’ reaction to Haitian refugees, as opposed to Cuban refugees.  Poverty and political domination are present in both, however Cuban refugees are welcomed at all times, while the United States has historically ignored Haiti.[46]  “Historically, those who have fled countries friendly to the United States – El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and others – have had strikingly little success”.[47]

     Considering the policy of embarrassment the United States has employed, we can clearly see our government has long followed a “National Self Interest” model for refugee admittance.  There are several well-recognized models for refugee admittance in industrialized nations, and while most western industrialized nations have adopted the “National Self Interest” model, most western nations were not unquestionably linked to the precipitation of the massive migration of people seeking refugee status.“The national self interest model is based on the theory that receiving countries should use their refugee admissions program in whatever way is most favorable to them.”[48]  This model is focused primarily on maximizing the value to the host country, both politically and economically, on in the host country and on foreign soil.[49]

     There are positive results from the national self-interest approach, including the special care the United States often takes in nations where the US has caused an uprising.[50]  “The United States has tended to use this approach to select refugees in instances where it has urged an uprising or other resistance in another country and then failed to follow through with military support”.[51]  The reasoning behind admitting refugees from nations the United States has interfered in is from a general feeling in government that the United States must be the guarantor of their freedom in spite of its failure on the ground in their nation, such as in Hungry or Vietnam.[52]

National Self Interest, is only one of three predominant approaches to refugee admissions programs, the other two are the “humanitarian approach” and the “human rights model”.[53]  The “humanitarian approach aims to relieve the suffering of large numbers of refugees confronted by disease, hunger or armed conflict in their home country.  The “human rights model” “selects refugees individually based on human rights violations they have suffered, thereby aiming to deter the government that committed the violations”.[54]Some may find it interesting or shrewd that the United States chooses the most self-serving and convenient of refugee policies.

     The downward trend in refugee admissions can be traced to immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States invasion force does not exclusively cause the instability in Iraq; warring religious groups like the Shiite and Sunni Muslims have created a vacuum of social and political structure in danger of toppling what little government Iraq has held in place.  Ignoring for a moment the damage caused by the United States (as victory is war will often cause over the losing nation), many thousands of Iraqis qualify for refugee status, and would receive assistance from many industrialized nations, were it not for the threat of Al-Qaeda ties hanging over every refugee candidate.


     “The post-September 11 US-led wars in these countries, however, have fostered conditions in both places that have either created refugees out of people who were previously not endangered, or allowed conditions to fester, which continuously place people in danger of losing their lives.”[55]

No sovereign nation owes a duty to the refugees of another.  Certainly any nation at war with another nation owes no duty to care for the political and social refugees of that nation, even if the warring nation instigated the dire circumstances. We may sign treaties and propose laws that set standards and principled ideals, but none matter more than the policy of the executive in power.  Put in relevant terms, the United States owes no duty to Iraq, nor did we owe a duty to the South Vietnamese following the Vietnam War.  But, we’ve demonstrated a desire to be the benefactors for any refugees we can take in from across the world, in all political situations and in all nations and certainly shouldn’t be judged on just one.

     Considering this though, we do have a duty of consistency.  Refugees do not flee their countries out of convenience of entitlement to a better life.  Refugees flee oppression and look to sovereign safe nations as a harbor, where they can arrive with nothing, not even an identity in many cases, and build from scratch.  When the United States outwardly professes an interest and intent to help Iraqi refugees, then consistently acts contrary to this professed goal that, is a policy we should correct.  The United States took in a tremendous number of refugees following the Vietnam War, and some may say acted illogically from an immigration point of view. 

Few citizens would blame the Federal Government for a more conservative approach following this war, but whatever policy is instituted should be followed.  Following the attacks of September 11th, the cry was for security, and the measures the United States took immediately to reexamine our security were probably necessary, but what has followed?  There is no proof that any person who has taken part (before or after the attacks of September 11th) in the refugee program has any ties to terrorism.[56]  None.

 Certainly if we are acting in the name of security, logic would require we identify the threats, which do not appear to be in protecting and resettling refugees.  It took five years to reevaluate the screening process on the ground in Iraq, creating a bottleneck for would-be refugees.  The promises made to loyal Iraqis have been modified to no require that they make their way to the United States on their own. 

     Going forward I would suggest that modifications are made to the administrative agencies that govern immigration and


refugee screening, so that resettlement may be expedited and applications are adjudicated.  Whether it is by utilizing the available to screen and process people on the ground in beleaguered countries, or to provide these services in friendly nations near those in dire situations, the Unites States cannot afford to pick and choose the nations and groups that offer the most political bounty when considered who to assist. The United States is a beacon, as it has been for centuries, to the destitute and desperate for freedom.  If our current policies and procedures concerning refugees in Iraq continue, we will all be made hypocrites.

[1] Meital Waibsnaider, Note: How National Self-Interest and Foreign Policy Continue to Influence the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 391 (2006).

[2] Id. at 398.

[3] Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. 1011(a)(42) (2000).

[4] United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees art. 3, July 28, 1951, 19 U.S.T. 6259, 189 U.N.T.S. 150

[5] Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, Jan. 31, 1967, 19 U.S.T. 6223, 606 U.N.T.S. 267

[6] Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960,, (last visited Dec. 8, 2008).

[7] Herring, George C.: America’s Longest War, p. 18.

[8] See Generally, “Dien Bien Phu, Battle of”, Encyclopedia Britannica, (last visited Dec. 11, 2008).

[9] See Generally, “Vietnam War”, Encyclopædia Britannica,, (last visited Dec. 9, 2008).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Clark Dougan & Stephen Weiss, Nineteen Sixty-Eight, Boston Publishing Company, 1983, p. 184.

[15] Peter Church, ed. A Short History of South-East Asia, Singapore. John Wiley & Sons, 2006, p.193–194.

[16] See Generally, “Vietnam War”, Encyclopædia Britannica,, (last visited Dec. 9, 2008).

[17] Id.

[18] “Vietnam War”, Funk & Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, 2005.

[19] Statistical information about casualties of the Vietnam War,, (last visited Dec. 8, 2008).

[20] See Kathryn M. Bockley, A Historical Overview of Refugee Legislation: The Deception of Foreign Policy in the Promised Land, 21 N.C.J. Int’l L. & Com. Reg. 253, (1995).

[21] See Generally, “Iraq War”, Encyclopædia Britannica,, (last visited Dec. 9, 2008).

[22] See Generally, “Iraq”, Encyclopædia Britannica,, (last visited Dec. 11, 2008).

[23] Statistics on Displaced Iraqis Around the World (April 2007),, (last visited on Dec. 11, 2008).

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Meital Waibsnaider, Note: How National Self-Interest and Foreign Policy Continue to Influence the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 391, 404 (2006).

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Kathryn M. Bockley, A Historical Overview of Refugee Legislation: The Deception of Foreign Policy in the Land of Promise, 21 N.C.J. Int’l L. & Com. Reg. 253, 276 (1995).

[31] Meital Waibsnaider, Note: How National Self-Interest and Foreign Policy Continue to Influence the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 391 (2006).

[32] Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. 1011(a)(42) (2000).

[33] “Vietnam War”, Funk & Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia 2005.

[34] Meital Waibsnaider, Note: How National Self-Interest and Foreign Policy Continue to Influence the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 391, 411 (2006).

[35] Id.

[36] See Eleanor Acer, Refuge in an Insecure Time: Seeking Asylum in the Post-9/11 United States, 28 Fordham Int’l L.K. 1361 (2005).

[37] Meital Waibsnaider, Note: How National Self-Interest and Foreign Policy Continue to Influence the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 391, 411 (2006).

[38] Id.

[39] Bureau of Population, Refugees, and migration, U.S. Dep’t of State, Cumulative Summary of Refugee Admissions, 1975-2003, at 5 (2003), available at; Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, U.S. Dep’t of State, Summary of Refugee Admissions Fiscal Year 2004, at 3 (2004), available at

[40] Kevin Walsh, Victims of a Growing Crisis: A Call For Reform Of The United States Immigration Law And Policy Pertaining to Refugees Of The Iraq War, 53 Vill. L. Rev. 421 (2008).

[41] Iraqi Refugees Facing Desperate Situation,, (last visited Dec. 8, 2008).

[42] Kevin Walsh, Victims of a Growing Crisis: A Call For Reform Of The United States Immigration Law And Policy Pertaining to Refugees Of The Iraq War, 53 Vill. L. Rev. 421 (2008).

[43] Meital Waibsnaider, Note: How National Self-Interest and Foreign Policy Continue to Influence the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 391, 405 (2006).

[44] Id at 414.

[45] Id.

[46] See Generally, Stephen H. Legomsky, Immigration and Refugee Law and Policy 921-22 (4th ed. 2005)

[47] Id.

[48] James C. Hathaway, A Reconsideration of the Underlying Premise of Refugee Law, 31 Harv. Int’l L.J. 129, 143 (1990).

[49] Id.

[50] Daniel J. Steinbock, The Qualities of Mercy: Maximizing the Impact of U.S. Refugee Resettlement, 36 U.Mich. J.L. Reform 951, 981 (2003).

[51] Id at 978.

[52] Id at 980.

[53] Meital Waibsnaider, Note: How National Self-Interest and Foreign Policy Continue to Influence the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 391, 414­­ (2006).

[54] Id. 

[55] Id.

[56] Somini Sengupta, “Refugees at America’s Door Find It Closed After Attacks”, N.Y. Times, Oct. 29, 2001, at A1.

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